Greg Kress, sponsored by the Revs Program at Stanford University
Re-Make Cadillac Design Restoration
Re-Make Cadillac Design Restoration
Re-Make Cadillac Design Restoration
In 2012, Stanford's Revs program launched an immersive course for undergraduates and graduates focused on understanding mechanical engineering, manufacturing techniques and design perspectives during the height of American industry. The project did this using an iconic vehicle, a 1962 Cadillac DeVille, representing America in all its fintail glory, the peak market share that Cadillac ever held. A complete disassembly and reassembly took place over 2 quarters in 2012, with students participating from disciplines as far-reaching as Art History, Urban Studies and Computer Science. There were no grades and only one guarantee: you’d get your hands dirty.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
Can a group of students, with limited automotive experience and little guidance, restore a half-century old Cadillac to working order in three months? We live in a world where nearly every product contains a computer, is used exclusively on a computer, was designed on a computer, or all of the above. This course offered a window into design, manufacturing and engineering of technical products in the world before computers. There are no control circuits, no black boxes; just human-scale mechanisms that are meant to be understood, assembled and repaired by real people. Our challenge was to step into the shoes of those people, 50 years later, and learn from the machine as primary source material. Our challenge was to get the car running again by tearing it down completely, assessing, restoring and rebuilding every part to the best of our ability. Outsourcing labor to professionals was kept to an absolute minimum. In the course of this work, we reflected on questions such as: How has the way that we design/manufacture products changed the products we design? How has this changed our relationship to these products? Does this reflect a change in American identity and values? Has our definition of luxury changed? Has our vision for the future changed? Are there things that were easier to do in 1962 than 2012? Are there things that we have forgotten how to do? Why is this car still culturally relevant?3. The Intent: What point of view did you bring to the project, and were there additional criteria that you added to the brief?
My grandfather took my dad to college in this car from Scarsdale, New York to Madison, Wisconsin. He made cross-country sales trips in this car, building his company that would become the family business. He took this car with him when they moved to open the first factory in Puerto Rico, and then the Dominican Republic. He retired with this car in Florida. Only he knows how many times the 5-digit odometer has rolled over. I never knew my grandfather that well, but I grew up with this car sitting in our garage. In many ways it is the only artifact I have of him. My sense of responsibility and closeness to this vehicle meant that I never wanted to “outsource” the restoration work to professionals, as is usually done. I approached the problem, and the class, with the intent that we would do as much of the work ourselves as possible, from grinding rust off the differential to fabricating replacement parts. The whole car was ours to dive into, leaving no screw unturned; there were no boundaries, just an ambitious goal. We had the rare opportunity to see the car from every angle and every perspective, inside and out and underneath, as drivers, mechanics, engineers and designers. My point of view was that we could handle the restoration ourselves, learning as we went, because it was this direct personal involvement through which you build an understanding and appreciation for the machine (not by sitting and watching a lecture).4. The Process: Describe the rigor that informed your project. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) What stakeholder interests did you consider? (Audience, business, organization, labor, manufacturing, distribution, etc., as applicable)
There were three main areas of focus for us that informed the car’s deconstruction and therefore the learning opportunities: Mechanical Engineering – This car had a single owner and ran reliably for nearly 30 years, all without any form of onboard computer control. The quality of engineering of these machines was state-of-the-art at the time, with many still on the road today. Additionally, it represented a time when much manufacturing was still performed by hand, as robots had not yet been introduced to the assembly line. For these and other reasons, there was much to learn from the machine in its original state, half a century later. Students benefitted from hands-on interaction with the machine and its components as a unique learning opportunity that is valuable to any engineer. An understanding of the machine and its relationship to the people who built, maintained, and operated it gives engineers and designers valuable perspective. Culture – From the posturing of the Cold War to the hippie counterculture movement that took place in the U.S. around the time it was made, this car existed in a uniquely rich cultural context. This period resulted in some of the most well-known American music, literature and films of all time (many of which featured automotive themes prominently). To better understand this car and its cultural context, there were many opportunities to find print and recorded references to Cadillac cars around this time, with multiple online projects already attempting to catalog them. These included original shop manuals, classic advertisements and marketing campaigns, iconic films, popular music and literature. Design – In many ways these cars represent the peak of American automotive design and styling, as status symbols, luxury products and beautiful fusions of form and function. The enduring admiration for these cars worldwide is a testament to their success as outstanding products. During the same era, prominent American designers had the world’s attention from Buckminster Fuller to Herman Miller. As an iconic design element from this fascinating time in American history, we can learn a lot about the product and its meaning in society. The object itself inspires in its classic form.5. The Value: How does your project earn its keep in the world? What is its value? What is its impact? (Social, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, environmental, cultural, gladdening, etc.)
The impact of this project, primarily, is in exploring the profound change in American values and identity in the past half-century, and how this is expressed in the things we produce, and the way that we produce them. For me, the most impactful messages were: • What does it really mean for something to be “made in America?” Can a product express American identity if it is not made in America? • How does this car show us that our values have changed? How does it show us that they have stayed the same? • This car expresses a particular vision for the future. 50 years later, have we achieved that vision? What is our vision for the future now? How do modern products express that? Students gained a high degree of problem-solving confidence working on such a complex, ambitious project and getting to assume real ownership over the process.6. Did the context of your project change throughout its development? If so, how did your understanding of the project change?
My grandfather immigrated to the United States from Poland as a young boy in 1919. In the midst of the Great Depression, he founded his first business which turned into a successful family enterprise that has now spanned three generations. To him, to own a Cadillac represented the fulfillment of the American Dream and a proud statement of his American identity. It was in 1962 that he purchased this 6-window hardtop Cadillac Sedan DeVille, which remained in his possession until just before his death in 1996. The car never had a second owner, and was subsequently handed down from my father to me. Growing up around this car, I always found it to be an object of exceptional beauty and wonder. It gave me great satisfaction to be able to offer this car as a tool for learning about the quintessential period of American design, engineering and automotive prowess. It is a mechanical object steeped in my personal history. Our goal was “simply” to get the car running again, learning as we go, and knowing that we’d get pretty greasy. The guiding philosophy was that we could probably do it if we just started trying to figure out how, and that if we failed, we would have still learned a lot.7. How will your project remain economically and operationally sustainable in the long term?
The course achieved pedagogical goals that extended far beyond purely automotive subject matter. At the most basic level, students gained hands-on experience with technical problem solving and basic shop techniques and practices (e.g., how to use a sandblaster to remove rust). Beyond that, the open and ambitious nature of the project meant that every student had a role in project management. Understanding that solving a problem involves not just technical know-how but also the resourcefulness to find suitable replacement parts, planning ahead, and communicating with others. Because work was not specifically delegated or assigned, students had to assume a greater degree of responsibility in managing their contribution to the larger whole. This experience in project management is a very useful skill for the students to carry forward. Furthermore, the project work provided an opportunity for high-level reflection on major design concepts such as luxury, identity, and style, but in a unique context where your body is as much involved in the work as your mind. Working in, on, under and around this car is a very physically engaging activity that can be a pretty good workout. Getting the chance to get out of the classroom, away from the computer screen and do some learning outside, breaking bolts loose in the rust and grease can be very fulfilling. And to jump on such an ambitious project – not knowing what you are getting yourself into – and see it all come together in the end is a major confidence boost.
This project was a really nice and ambitious way to enhance contemporary culture and history. Using history as a key to re-engineer the development of modern thought, design, function and form.
We all support learning by doing which this project was full of. It offers amazing insights into systemic and holistic design and manufacture, vision and what we strive for as consumers and individuals.
How could you develop this into a broader interdisciplinary process where you focus on other period iconic products as this concept has so much potential.
It is topical in the sense that more and more people are exploring the hacker space and mindset where by the skill to re-engineer and innovate is becoming more and more important and essential.
We really appreciated the level of reflection and potential the leading teacher in this project realized and hope that this will be anchored deeper into creating much more ‘learning by doing’, through short project like this and more long term ones.
We see this as stage 1, re-engineering & reparation of a process. What if you could have recorded this as learning material for others to rebuild Cadillac’s! or reflect upon the cultural element an questions this project raises.
We would like to see it unfold over a longer period of time and see more around: – the development of learning goals.
- what is anchored from the inter-disciplinary work for say the artists, history student etc?
- How would a same team work on creating something new having been through this process or applying it to a real social need that needs a constructive sustainable interdisciplinary solution?